Breast Cancer: Diagnosis and Treatment

Breast cancer can be a very scary illness to have to deal with. It can be particularly nerve-wracking if you have detected a lump in your breasts through a breast self-exam or if your health care provider has found evidence of breast cancer. However scary, though, it is necessary to go through the appropriate diagnosis and treatment procedures in order to ensure that you have the best chances of recovery.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

If you or your health care provider have detected any signs of breast cancer (such as a lump) it will be necessary to undergo some diagnostic tests. These tests are designed to help confirm if there are any cancer cells in your breasts.


A mammogram is a simple x-ray procedure that can provide you and your health care specialist with a picture of the inside of your breasts. A mammogram machine uses low doses of x-rays to produce a picture of your breasts, which can then be analyzed for any tumors or suspicious lumps. Mammograms are usually performed in hospital or at a breast clinic and typically take around 30 minutes.

To perform a mammogram, your breast will be placed on a special platform that is attached to the mammogram machine. Your breast is then compressed by a plastic paddle, to help ensure that all areas of the breast are x-rayed. X-rays are then taken of your breasts, from different angles.

During a biopsy, your health care provider will remove a sample of cells from your breast tissue. These cells are then analyzed under a microscope for evidence of cancer. There are three types of biopsies:


  • Fine Needle Aspiration: Needle aspiration is performed as an outpatient procedure, and is relatively painless. A fine needle attached to a syringe is inserted into the breast, near the area of any detectable lumps. Cells are then aspirated into the syringe and taken to a lab for testing.
  • Needle Biopsy: Needle biopsy is typically performed if the needle aspiration procedure fails to remove any usable cells. A larger needle is inserted into the core of your breast lump. A section of the middle of the tumor is then removed, and examined for cancer cells.
  • Excision Biopsy: Excision biopsy is a surgical procedure during which the entire breast lump is removed. This procedure is usually performed in hospital using general anesthetic. Once the lump has been removed, it is analyzed for the presence of cancer cells.


Breast Cancer Treatment Options

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it is important to receive immediate treatment. Early treatment of breast cancer can greatly increase your chances of survival, and may allow you to avoid having to lose your breast. It can also reduce your chances of experiencing breast cancer recurrence.


The lumpectomy procedure is often performed for women suffering from Stage I, II, or III breast cancer. Also known as wide excision, it is a fairly simple procedure that removes only a small amount of breast tissue. Specifically, lumpectomy targets the breast tumor along with a minimal amount of surrounding, healthy tissue.

Lumpectomy is usually successful in removing all signs of cancer, and generally leaves you with a very normal looking breast. Lumpectomy is often paired with radiation therapy in order to ensure the best treatment possible.

Mastectomy is a surgical procedure that is used to remove all cancerous tissues in the breast area. During a mastectomy, your entire breast is removed. Mastectomy may also involve the removal of lymph nodes or chest wall muscles that may be infected with cancer cells. There are various different types of mastectomy to choose from:


  • Simple Mastectomy: A simple (or total) mastectomy removes your entire breast, along with it�s skin and nipple. All lymph nodes are left behind.
  • Modified Radical: Modified radical mastectomies are the most commonly performed mastectomies. This procedures removes the entire breast, along with nipple and areola, and axillary lymph nodes.
  • Radical Mastectomy: The radical mastectomy removes the entire breast, nipple, and areola, along with accompanying lymph nodes. Major and minor chest muscles located beneath the breast are also removed. This type of mastectomy is rarely performed nowadays, because it is so extreme.
  • Partial Mastectomy: A partial mastectomy removes only a portion of your breast tissue. It is typically performed when the cancer cells are located in only one specific area of the breast.


Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to damage and kill cancer cells. It can be used to shrink tumors or to control the growth of your breast cancer. It is often used after lumpectomy or mastectomy procedures. There are two types of radiation therapy:


  • External Beam Radiation: External beam radiation is the most common type of radiation therapy. This type of radiation is delivered through a machine to specific areas of your body. It is typically painless, but can cause side effects including fatigue, loss of appetite, and a sunburn-like rash.
  • Internal Radiation: Internal radiation (also known as brachytherapy) is now being used more often in breast cancer treatment. This treatment involves placing radioactive materials inside the breast, in areas where cancer has been detected. Between 10 and 20 plastic catheters are inserted into the breast. Radioactive pellets are then placed inside these catheters and work to kill cancer cells. Internal radiation is associated with some side effects, including fatigue, infection, and infertility.


Chemotherapy is a treatment regimen comprised of a variety of anti-cancer drugs. These drugs help to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. They can also be used to control the growth of breast cancer or to prevent its recurrence. Often given through an intravenous catheter, chemotherapy can also be administered orally or through intramuscular injection. Chemotherapy often incorporates more than one type of drug. Known as combination chemotherapy, the use of two to three anti-cancer drugs is much more effective than the use of just one.

Each chemotherapy regimen must be tailored to the individual patient, and can last anywhere between two and twelve months. Unfortunately, chemotherapy is associated with a number of side effects. Chemotherapy drugs also kill healthy cells throughout the body, which can leave you prone to infection, mouth sores, and cause your hair to fall out. Chemotherapy also causes nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.

Hormone Therapy
Some cancer cells feed off of hormones produced by your body, particularly estrogen and progesterone. Hormone therapy works to block the production of these hormones, starving the cancer cells. Tamoxifen therapy is the leading type of hormone therapy used for breast cancer treatment. Taken orally, tamoxifen is highly effective at killing cancer cells, however, it does affect normal, healthy cells too. Hormone therapy is generally reserved for postmenopausal women although it may be used in pre-menopausal women occasionally. Side effects include: nausea, depression, and vomiting.


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